Exiting the European Union (Sanctions)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:37 pm on 29th April 2019.

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Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 6:37 pm, 29th April 2019

We do not intend to divide the House on these statutory instruments, because we believe that in the event of a no-deal Brexit it would be right to roll over these sanctions in their current form, which is what we are providing for. However, the papers before us include some detailed descriptions of the sanctions and explanatory memorandums setting out their purpose—what the SIs are intended to do and why—so I want to ask the Minister a couple of questions. I will structure it in a slightly different way, because I think the order on the Order Paper is completely illogical, but I will begin by discussing chemical weapons.

The use of chemical weapons is prohibited, and the chemical weapons convention covering these sanctions is now 20 years old. In general, the convention has been a significant success, because 97% of the stockpiles of chemical weapons have been destroyed. However, we want to think about ways in which we can strengthen enforcement of the convention. Obviously, the sanctions are part of that enforcement mechanism. The current sanctions apply entirely to people from Syria or to Russians who have worked for the GRU—that is because of their involvement in the Salisbury incident. On the strengthening of enforcement, in addition to these and possible further sanctions, have the Government considered requesting challenge inspections, which are used if one country thinks another country has not been telling the truth about its stockpiles? It is possible to request such inspections through the UN Security Council. Given the fact that there is evidence of the use of chemical weapons in Syria, Malaysia, Indonesia—to which I shall come—and Great Britain, might the Government like to think about requesting challenge inspections?

I have a technical question for the Minister. According to Human Rights Watch, chemical weapons have been used 85 times in the Syria conflict. As I said, the sanctions relating to chemical weapons and Syria cover Russians and Syrians, but it is believed that Daesh has used some chemical weapons in Syria, and Daesh is currently not covered by the sanctions at all. Why is that and what consideration have the Government given to the matter? Is it simply not necessary because Daesh is a proscribed terrorist group, or is there some other reason? Does the Minister anticipate changing the chemical weapons regime when we have an independent sanctions policy?

I am extremely concerned about allegations that white phosphorus was used in West Papua in December 2018. I have met a human rights defender who has a lot of detailed information about the allegation, which is extremely disappointing because the human rights situation in Indonesia has improved markedly over the past 20 years. The use of white phosphorus by the security services would obviously be a breach of the chemical weapons convention. If the Minister or his officials do not have the answer now, please could they write to me on the matter?

Let me turn to the statutory instrument on Syria. The current sanctions that the Minister proposes to roll over cover 277 individuals and 51 entities—he mentioned oil, luxury goods and so on. Will the Minister update the House on the effectiveness of the sanctions and on what other steps the Government are taking to reduce the terrible ongoing conflict in Syria? When and how does the Minister think a negotiated political solution with the consent of the Syrian people is going to be achieved?

I wish to draw the Minister’s attention to what seems to be a hole in the Syria sanctions. They are meant to cover members of President Assad’s close family and his close associates, but it has come to light that his niece has been living and studying in the UK for some time. She was able to gain entry to this country, to enrol on not just one but two university courses, and to fund her stay, all apparently without the authorities noticing. Many people will be extremely angry to hear about that. The immigration regulations in this country are now quite tight, and people often come to Members when they are about to be thrown out by the Border Agency, yet the niece of President Assad, one of the most serious serial human rights abusers, who has used chemical weapons against his own people, has been allowed to live peacefully and happily in this country and to secure her education here. That cannot be right. What does the Minister think about it and what is he going to do about it?

Let me turn to Belarus, as there are obviously connections between the sanctions against Russians and the Belarus sanctions. In respect of human rights in Europe, Belarus is currently in the deep freeze, but the sanctions are quite narrow, covering only four people. Does the Minister think the sanctions are proving to be effective in affecting the behaviour of the Belarus Government? As he said, evidence of human rights violations in Belarus continues to come in. In 2016, the EU decided to lift sanctions against 170 people, but the ongoing human rights situation in Belarus is extremely serious. The Minister said that the sanctions were related only to the disappearance of four individuals; why were those four particular episodes the ones on which the Government and the European Union alighted in respect of their sanctions policy? I am pleased that, being the Minister for Europe, the Minister knows a lot about Belarus and will be able to tell the House what is going on. Does he give any credibility at all to Moscow’s proposal for the unification of Russia and Belarus?